The evolution of human trafficking messaging in the United States and its effect on public opinion

Tabitha Bonilla*, Cecilia Hyunjung Mo

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Despite a near unanimous agreement that human trafficking is a morally reprehensible practice, there is confusion around what qualifies as human trafficking in the United States. Adopting a mixed-method strategy, we examine how human trafficking is defined by the public; how contemporary (mis)understanding of human trafficking developed; and the public opinion consequence of this (mis)understanding. The definition of human trafficking has evolved over time to become nearly synonymous with slavery; however, we demonstrate that media and anti-trafficking organisations have been focussing their attention on the sexual exploitation of foreign women. We show that general public opinion reflects this skewed attention; the average citizen equates human trafficking with the smuggling of women for sexual slavery. Using a survey experiment, we find that shining light on other facets of human trafficking - the fact that human trafficking is a security problem and a domestic issue - can increase public response to the issue.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)201-234
Number of pages34
JournalJournal of Public Policy
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2019


  • experiment
  • human trafficking
  • public opinion
  • slavery
  • topic modelling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Administration
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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